Genders OnLine Journal

Issue 43     2006

Black and White Masculinity
in Three Steven Soderbergh Films

By ELAINE ROTH

[1] Steven Soderbergh, director of both experimental films and big-budget genre films, has been unusually candid about racism in Hollywood.  In a June 2003 New York Times profile of African American actor Don Cheadle, Soderbergh bluntly states that Cheadle would have advanced further at this point in his career if he were white (Hochman, 13).  Soderbergh's assertion of racially discriminatory hiring practices in the film industry allows Cheadle to avoid making the case himself and thereby drawing the charge that he is attempting to benefit professionally by "playing the race card."

[2] However, despite Soderbergh's vocal stance on industry discrimination, and despite the progressive politics consistently advanced in his films, Soderbergh's films themselves perpetuate a long-standing tradition in U.S. cinema of representing black men as predators intent upon victimizing women, particularly white women.   A close reading of Out of Sight (1998), Traffic (2000) and Full Frontal (2002) suggests that these stereotypical figures indicate neither an investigation of black masculinity nor, finally, an effort to demonize black men.  Instead, the dangerous black men who recur in Soderbergh's films function as villainous counterparts to the non-traditional white men in whom the films are deeply invested.  Ultimately, the rapacious black men in Out of Sight and Traffic are caricatures that serve to emphasize the heroism of the white protagonists.  The films posit white men, even the alternative white men Soderbergh returns to repeatedly, as agents of rescue and valor.  Soderbergh validates the thoughtful white men in his films by demonstrating their accordance to traditional forms of white masculinity, such as the use of vigilante violence to protect white women.  Drawing upon feminist film theory, critical race theory, and analyses of popular U.S. cinema, I argue in this paper that the inclusion of stereotypical black masculinity in Soderbergh's films provides the threat that mobilizes otherwise non-macho white men, thereby rehabilitating their active masculinity. 

[3] Soderbergh's films lend themselves to an auteurist analysis because as a director, he maintains a striking amount of control over his films and has significant creative input into them.  As well as serving as director, Soderbergh edited his first three films himself (sex, lies, and videotape [1989], Kafka [1991], and King of the Hill [1993]) and wrote the screenplays for four films (sex, lies, and videotape, King of the Hill, The Underneath [1995], and Schizopolis [1996]).  Having begun his career as a low-budget filmmaker, albeit an immediately successful one, he has often been regarded as the catalyst for the independent film movement in the U.S., a movement characterized in the cultural imagination as challenging the confines of traditional Hollywood filmmaking conventions.  Soderbergh has gone on to make a succession of experimental films (Kafka, Schizopolis, Full Frontal, and Bubble [2005]) over which he exercised a great deal of creative control because of their relatively small budgets and small crews.  Through his emphasis on stylish editing, sound, camera work, frame compositions, and color, Soderbergh has imported into Hollywood some of the formal preoccupations of experimental filmmaking, such as challenges to character identification and narrative structure.  He has also managed to maintain an independent director's control over his films, even while working on projects with much bigger budgets.  It was not particularly unusual for Soderbergh to double as director and cinematographer for the low-budget, experimental film Schizopolis.  However, in every film he has made since Erin Brockovich (2000) he has also functioned as his own cinematographer (credited with as Peter Andrews), an unprecedented combination of roles for big-budget studio films such as Traffic, Ocean's Eleven (2001), Solaris (2002), and Ocean's Twelve (2004).  Soderbergh's investment in using a hand-held camera also reinforces his control over the image, in that the camera is literally attached to his own body (Traffic contains just four non-hand-held shots, which is remarkable for a lengthy, big-budget feature film [Kaufman, 161]).  Soderbergh has further extended his ability to shape his films by working with the same people repeatedly, from soundtrack musicians and producers, to actors such as Don Cheadle.

[4] However, despite his commitment to formal innovation and visual style, Soderbergh's representation of black men remains largely consistent with mainstream, stereotypical filmmaking practices.  When black men appear in Soderbergh films, such as Out of Sight, Traffic, and Full Frontal, they frequently threaten the white nuclear family or the white heterosexual couple.  Such a portrayal of black masculinity corresponds to long-standing national hysteria about perceived black threats to white bodies.  In this essay, I focus on Out of Sight and Traffic because both films feature major plot points in which a crisis in white masculinity (a non-violent criminal's last big score; a daughter's descent into drug addiction) is galvanized by black masculinity.  In addition, both films were made with large budgets and had the potential to reach large audiences (despite this potential, and although it was well-regarded critically, Out of Sight did not perform well commercially).  Out of Sight marks a shift in Soderbergh's career away from the more experimental films Gray's Anatomy (1996) and Schizopolis, and towards more accessible filmmaking. In keeping with this shift, Traffic was extremely well-received, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2000.  I have also included an analysis of Full Frontal, a more experimental, less narrative-driven, and less popular film than Out of Sight or Traffic, because it not only foregrounds conflict between black and white masculinity but also because, unlike Soderbergh's other films, it comments explicitly on the representation of black men in mainstream cinema.  Full Frontal's direct consideration of this topic, however, only underscores the film's own dependence on stereotypes about black men.  The reoccurrence of these stereotypes in very different types of films reveals a continuing reliance on representing whiteness at the expense of black masculinity. 

[5] Using black characters to reveal the traits of white characters has a long history in U.S. popular culture.  In Playing the Race Card:  Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson, Linda Williams locates a trajectory of representations of black men as victimized or victimizing figures in popular U.S. texts.  From Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), through its many theatrical and cinematic adaptations, to The Birth of a Nation (1915), the television series Roots (1977), and finally the O.J. Simpson trial, Williams traces a dynamic of imperiled white women and brutalized or brutal black men.  In her conclusion, Williams argues that "We have seen over and over that a predominately white America needs to believe in its own virtue vis-à-vis either the extreme suffering or the extreme villainy of the black male body" (308).  Soderbergh, then, draws upon a longstanding tradition in using the villainy of a black male character as a means of demonstrating the virtue of his white characters. 

[6] The purpose of this essay, however, is not to castigate an innovative filmmaker.  Instead, in keeping with other scholarly writing on popular films, this essay seeks to reveal that even visually stylish, politically liberal, contemporary narrative films like Soderbergh's rely upon reductive understandings of race and masculinity that have a long history in popular U.S. culture.  Furthermore, this essay responds to Toni Morrison's call for "studies of the ways in which an Africanist character is used to limn out and enforce the invention and implications of whiteness.  We need studies that analyze the strategic use of black characters to define the goals and enhance the qualities of white characters" (52-53).  This essay advances Morrison's agenda by charting how the films' negative portrayals of black men reveal repeated, even obsessive, efforts to redeem alternative white men.  Soderbergh's strategic use of black characters suggests that American storytelling, even at its most progressive, continues to sanctify whiteness at the expense of blackness. 

[7] In High Contrast:  Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood, at the conclusion of a discussion of mainstream films enjoyed by feminists, such as Thelma and Louise (1991), Sharon Willis speculates that the production of more such films will "continue to expose the anxious and negative side of even our most exciting, progressive, or jubilant visions" (128).  Similarly, while I find Soderbergh one of the more exciting, progressive, and jubilant filmmakers currently working in the U.S., this project seeks to illuminate the anxious and negative mobilization of racial difference in his films. 

[8] The narratives of Soderbergh's films have consistently demonstrated an investment in progressive social issues.  For instance, the film Erin Brockovich, based on actual court cases, sides with the citizens of Hinkley, California against the energy corporation Pacific Gas and Electric in claiming that PG&E poisoned Hinkley's drinking water.  The film champions the grass-roots activism that mobilizes the Hinkley citizens and positively portrays working-class people using the legal system to sue a major corporation for damages.  Soderbergh's plan to direct a biography of Che Guevara further indicates a liberal political perspective.  Soderbergh's liberal orientation also manifests itself in his films featuring strong women who disrupt dominant understandings of social class and gender.  Examples include the unruly white, working-class Erin Brockovich in the film of the same name and Out of Sight's Karen Sisco, a strong female lead with the powerful, traditionally male occupation of a federal marshal.  (Karen Sisco's own ethnicity merits discussion, a topic I return to later in this essay.)  Furthermore, Soderbergh's films consistently portray active female sexuality without demonization, a rare representation in U.S. films.  For instance, the sexually transgressive sister, Cynthia, in sex, lies, and videotape does not merit special punishment, as would be expected in most films, but instead is presented as a complex character.  Similarly, The Underneath revises the figure of the femme fatale (Rachel, the protagonist's ex-wife), depicting this traditionally vilified figure as no more eroticized or corrupt than any other character.  In addition to portraying strong women in his films, Soderbergh repeatedly includes white men who refuse to play a typically masculine role in the capitalist economy.  These romantic losers who reject traditional jobs include characters such as Graham in sex, lies, and videotape, Jack Foley in Out of Sight, George in Erin Brockovich, and Daniel Ocean in Ocean's Eleven and Ocean's Twelve

[9] Given Soderbergh's interest in liberal politics, as well as his investment in innovations of form, one might expect to find more progressive, nuanced representations of black and Latino men in his films.  His striking visual style has resulted in some of the more creatively experimental films produced within a mainstream context in the U.S. at the end of the twentieth century.  However, Soderbergh's challenges to mainstream conventions stop at the level of form and style, unfortunately, without a corresponding intervention in representations of race. 

[10] As a result, like most mainstream U.S. cinema, Soderbergh's films primarily address a white viewing audience.  For spectators of color, however, who may be all too familiar with the limitations of Hollywood racial politics, Soderbergh's films do consistently provide significant minor roles for actors of color.  Ocean's Eleven and Ocean's Twelve, for instance, include among the assembled team of criminals African American comedian Bernie Mac, Don Cheadle (once again), and Chinese acrobat Shaobo Qin.  In fact, Soderbergh has demonstrated conviction in supporting the careers of African American actors and performers, as evidenced by shrewd casting choices.  He included African American actress, singer, and songwriter Lauryn Hill in a bit part in King of Hill before she achieved fame.  Similarly, he early recognized the talents of African American actress Viola Davis, selecting Davis for minor roles in Out of Sight and Traffic, and a substantial part in Solaris, before Davis emerged in Antwone Fisher (2002) and Far From Heaven (2002).  Soderbergh also suggested African American writer, director, and actor Wendell Harris for a small part in Out of Sight, based on the strength of the film Harris directed, Chameleon Street (1991).  Furthermore, Soderbergh has repeatedly returned to several actors of color, including Don Cheadle and Puerto Rican actor Luiz Guzmán, who played a significant part in The Limey (1999), as well as minor characters in Out of Sight and Traffic.

[11] However, despite good casting choices, liberal politics, and an investment in interrogating gender roles, Soderbergh's films maintain a traditional and limited representation of black men.  Repeatedly, black men appear as criminals and rapists focused on violating women, particularly white women.  In deploying such figures, Soderbergh joins similar white male directors of the 1990's whose liberal politics and affiliation with independent filmmaking obscure the very traditional race-based stereotypes their films mobilize.  For example, in both Doug Liman's Go (1999) and Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream (2000), black male characters are primarily associated with sexuality; Go features a sexual guru, while Requiem includes a black man orchestrating the sexual degradation of the main white female character.     

[12] The dynamic between rapacious black men and subsequently heroic white men is crucial to the plot of Out of Sight, Soderbergh's adaptation of Elmore Leonard's 1992 crime novel.  In Out of Sight, the white male lead, Jack Foley (George Clooney), an amiable, largely non-violent thief recently escaped from jail, teams up with his black partner in crime, Buddy (Ving Rhames), for a jewel heist.  Jack and Buddy forge an uneasy alliance with another circle of thieves attempting to steal the same jewels.  Maurice (Don Cheadle), a black criminal, heads the second group, which includes the character Kenneth (Isaiah Washington), a black criminal and serial rapist.  While planning the heist, Jack becomes romantically involved with Karen (Jennifer Lopez), after initially abducting her as part of his prison escape.  During this abduction, Jack and Karen's first scene together, Jack quickly reassures Karen that he will not force himself on her, adding that he has never raped anyone. 

[13] In contrast to Jack's chivalry, the minor character of Kenneth attempts to assault several women over the course of the film, including Karen.  When Karen interrogates him at his house in their first scene together, he announces his intentions and she is forced to physically rebuff him.  Kenneth's desire to assault Karen reveals his singlemindedness, since his sister lingers nearby as a potential witness to the attack.  According to the film's logic, however, Kenneth is unable to restrain himself.  During this scene, Kenneth wears a T-shirt featuring a cartoon image of a white woman riding a surfboard, indicating his fascination with the sexualized female body before he even speaks or makes his intentions known.  His fixation on the female body is portrayed as violent and criminal, although his own body is also the subject of scrutiny.  Karen begins her interview by bantering with Kenneth about his career as a boxer and guessing his fighting division.  Because the divisions are based on weight, Karen must read his body to make her determination.  Her appraisal of his body is consistent with the availability of the black male body for scrutiny and valuation in mainstream U.S. cinema. 

[14] In another trope common to the representation of black men, Kenneth begins to harass Karen by describing his genitalia as barbarically powerful, referring to his penis as a "monster" out of control.  (In a flashback earlier in the film, Maurice, the leader of Kenneth's circle of thieves, uses similar language.  While in jail, extorting money from a wealthy, white-collar convict, Maurice threatens the man with rape and characterizes his own penis as a weapon.)  This assertion of black male genitalia as monstrous and dangerous references a longstanding perception of black male sexuality in the white imagination as inherently violent. 

[15] Kenneth's single-minded focus on sexual violation triggers and reveals the honorable behavior of the white criminal, Jack, and sets the final confrontation of the film in motion.  Kenneth's predatory sexuality recurs in the film's last act, during the joint heist of the jewels.  After the two combined gangs force their way into the house that contains the jewels, Kenneth immediately wants to rape Midge (Nancy Allen), the white maid, although Maurice instructs him to wait until the robbery has been completed.  Once again, this attempted assault primarily demonstrates Kenneth's rapacious mania, since his desire for sexualized violence in no way advances the robbery.  Although the film depicts the similarly unfocused impulses of the rest of the thieves - they try to select a CD to listen to, take food from the refrigerator, and marvel at the homeowner's clothing - their behavior is portrayed comically, in contrast to Kenneth's constant threat of violence. 

[16] The film relies structurally on Kenneth's attempted rape of Midge as a way for Jack to emerge as the most heroic character, as well as the most talented thief.  Unbeknownst to Maurice, Jack alone identifies and facilitates the theft of the jewels, and then escapes with Buddy from the house being ransacked.  However, in response to the threat posed to Midge, Jack returns to the scene of the crime in order to protect her, thereby initiating the film's final violent showdown.  In fact, in order to defend Midge, Jack kills Kenneth.   

[17] Understanding the black male body as inherently dangerous corresponds to an impulse to oversee, patrol, and contain that body.  In terms of representation, the rape threat in particular facilitates the objectification of the black male body.  During his attempted rape of Midge, for example, Kenneth forces Midge to join him in a bed and takes off most of his own clothing.  As a result, when Jack ultimately kills Kenneth, Kenneth's almost-naked body is revealed.  This objectification of the black male body recurs in Traffic.    

[18] The insistence on the danger of women being raped by black men not only relies upon a stereotypical portrayal of black men as sexually predatory but also reinforces white men as heroic champions of female virtue, using vigilante violence in the name of protection.  Jack unequivocally asserts himself as the rescuing agent of the white woman, sending Buddy away to escape with the jewels.  Our hero pledges to defend the white woman from sexual violation, not unlike the protagonist of Birth of a Nation (1915), the Little Colonel, who founds the Ku Klux Klan on the same principle.  Jack therefore returns to the scene of the robbery to kill the rapist and save the woman, after which he himself is caught by the police.  The job of protecting white women clearly falls only upon white men, and Jack's self-sacrifice further underwrites his heroism.  In contrast, Buddy does not offer to defend Midge, and Maurice appears uninvested in her welfare.  Only Jack can rescue her, and his doing so results in not only Kenneth's death but also Maurice's.  If the sympathetic and complex character of Buddy offers an exception to the typically violent and sexual portrayal of black men in cinema, his presence is more than outweighed by Kenneth and Maurice, familiar, stereotypical, angry black men.     

[19] Although Soderbergh and the film's screenwriter, Scott Frank, were bound to some degree in their representations of masculinity, race and violence by the original novel on which the film is based, the screenplay nonetheless made deliberate choices about its representation of black men.  In fact, many aspects of the novel were changed in the film:  Buddy is white in the novel but black in the film; and Buddy dies during the final confrontation in the novel but not the film.  The choice to maintain Kenneth as an animalistic rapist thus does not correspond to a straightforward dedication to the integrity of the original text.  Instead, Soderbergh's decision to circulate an uninterrogated portrayal of Leonard's reductive portrayal of a black male rapist draws upon a longstanding representation of black men in U.S. cinema and popular culture. 

[20] The adaptation of the main female character's role in the film is more complicated than that of her male counterparts.  The novel specifies that Karen is white, whereas Jennifer Lopez plays Karen in the film.  As in several other films in which Lopez has appeared, the film keeps her race ambiguous.  (While she is explicitly designated as Mexican-American in Selena [1997], Cuban in Blood and Wine [1997], and Italian in The Wedding Planner [2001], in Enough [2002] and Jersey Girl [2004] no references are made to her character's race.)  Karen's father is played by Denis Farina, an actor who looks sufficiently "ethnic" to correspond to Lopez's Puerto Rican roots (Farina is Italian-American, although the film does not characterize him as such).  Beyond the careful decision made in casting her father, the film resists clarifying Karen's racial identity.  In the U.S., only the status of whiteness has the power to deny itself as a category; all other racial statuses are necessarily identified.  As a result, by not explicitly specifying Karen's race, the film implicitly codes her as white.  For instance, when she arrests a Cuban man, Karen does not indicate that she speaks Spanish. 

[21] Out of Sight thus engages with Jennifer Lopez's racial identity in multiple and contradictory ways.  On the one hand, most audience members are probably familiar with Lopez's star persona and read her as a Latina woman.  Understood in this context, the union between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in the film represents a fairly rare configuration:  a positive portrayal of an interracial couple (although Lopez has gone on to star opposite white actors in several romantic roles since Out of Sight).  In addition, casting women of color in the parts of white women reverses the traditional Hollywood practice whereby white actors and actresses portray characters of color.  (Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun [1946] and Natalie Wood in West Side Story [1961] provide notorious examples.)  Historically, such opportunities for actresses of color have been available to some degree in Hollywood, although only to those who can "pass" for white.  (For instance, actress Susan Kohner's mother is Mexican, but Kohner primarily played white characters, although she is probably best known for her role as the tragic mulatta Sarah Jane in Imitation of Life [1959]). At the same time, the film's attempt to ignore Lopez's Latina heritage also promotes the universality of whiteness and works to deny racial difference.      

[22] Despite its overall evasion of her racial identity, however, the film includes a scene that depends upon an unspoken reading of Karen as Latina.  When Karen has a drink at a hotel bar, she rejects two white ad-agency representatives who approach her one at a time as part of a competition to see who can pick her up.  In his overture, the second would-be suitor describes a stereotypically Latino mascot he designed for his product, a mascot he describes as a "bandito."  Despite the film's attempts otherwise to evade her racial identity, this exchange relies on the subtext created by casting Lopez as Karen, since the sting of the caricature resonates more with Lopez present (and might not be legible to most audiences without her). 

[23] Lopez's ambiguous racial status in the film also informs her self-defense scene.  In keeping with Soderbergh's films' portrayals of strong female characters, the women in Out of Sight prove adept at defending themselves in both of the attempted rape scenes.  In contrast to age-old cinematic conventions whereby women play passive victims easily overcome by male strength, Karen and Midge skillfully combat their assailants.  Karen stops Kenneth's assault single-handedly with the aid of a collapsible baton, while Midge remains stoic after her capture and later aids Jack in overcoming Kenneth by throwing bedsheets over Kenneth's head.  These images of active female resistance are notable for their agency.  Nonetheless, Midge, the white woman, requires rescue, while Karen, the woman played by a Latina actress, does not.  According to the film's narrative, Karen is a federal marshal and presumably has received training for such situations.  In fact, the film consistently masculinizes Karen through her male-dominated job, her love of her gun, her ability to physically overpower men (both Kenneth and a Cuban man), as well as her predilection for drinking hard liquor alone in a hotel bar.  That these male traits are associated with a woman of color, even a star as glamorous and traditionally feminine as Jennifer Lopez, is not an accident.  In keeping with dominant ideology, white femininity is understood as helpless and weak, requiring male rescue and support.  In contrast, women of color are understood as resourceful, strong, even castrating, given Karen's effective use of her phallic baton, and thereby possibly "too" strong, but certainly not in need of protection.  No historical model exists in the cultural imagination for white men defending women of color from sexual assault.  Accordingly, Karen rebuffs Kenneth herself, while Midge needs to be rescued by Jack.  (Significantly, the British film 28 Days Later [2003] offers an important intervention into this familiar paradigm by depicting an extremely unusual scenario:  a white man protecting a black woman against sexual assault by white men).     

[24] However, the threat to both Midge and Karen is the same -- the body of a black man -- and the film eliminates this threat only through the black man's death.  In these moments, the film encourages its spectators to support the murder of black men in the name of protecting women.  If his films have evidenced a responsiveness to cultural feminism, Soderbergh's films have not responded to those who have long decried representations of black men that rely upon hypersexuality and violence, including film critics Ed Guerrero, in Framing Blackness, and Donald Bogle, in Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks.  

[25] Given the film's otherwise problematic representation of black men, the character of Buddy, Jack's partner in crime, introduces a useful counterpart to the more reductive, one-dimensional characters of Kenneth and Maurice.  Like the choice to portray Karen as Latina, the decision to cast African American actor Ving Rhames as Buddy resonates in multiple, contradictory ways.  On the one hand, providing the white hero with a black sidekick is a common configuration in U.S. cinema, particularly in action films.  (A classic example can be found in the Lethal Weapon series -- Lethal Weapon [1987], LW2 [1989], LW3 [1992], and LW4 [1998] -- in which the black sidekick, played by Danny Glover, is subjected to far more indignities than the white lead, played by Mel Gibson.)  Buddy also upholds stereotypes about black male hypersexuality by hiring a prostitute (an event discussed but not shown) while he and Jack plan the heist.  In contrast, Jack, despite the fact that he has just recently escaped from years in jail, remains chaste until his liaison with Karen.  On the other hand, the character of Buddy remains complicated and compelling.  Played with a gentle, thoughtful demeanor by Rhames, Buddy wears glasses, and feels guilty about the crimes he has committed, characteristics not traditionally associated with black cinematic criminality.  (In comparison, Jack evidences no remorse for his crimes.) 

[26] Most significantly, Buddy survives the film, an unusual resolution for the white hero's black subordinate.  Before the film's final violent confrontation, Jack suggests that Buddy not participate, but Buddy demurs, stating that he wants to watch Jack's back.  This exchange seems to anticipate a familiar scenario whereby a person of color in a minor role sacrifices himself or his best interests for the white hero in the last act (as seen in films from The Defiant Ones [1958] to Terminator II [1991], Daylight [1996], and Panic Room [2002]).  However, Out of Sight subverts this expectation.  After Jack and Buddy have surreptitiously accomplished the jewel heist, Jack again encourages Buddy not to take part in the violence that Jack rightly predicts will accompany his defense of Midge.  This time, Buddy agrees.  Although Buddy's departure reinforces Jack as the sole savior of white women, it also allows Buddy to escape unapprehended with the jewels.  Against cinematic and cultural conventions that demand black sacrifice, Buddy's narrative arc provides the only happy resolution in the film.  In contrast, Jack, who has been shot in the leg, is once again incarcerated, and Karen and Jack are separated at the end (although the film's final scene suggests an optimistic coda). 

[27] Finally, like the novel, the film also includes a white henchman referred to by his black boss, Maurice, as "white boy Bob."  Maurice's assertion of Bob's whiteness, a category that provides its constituents with power in part because the term "white" operates as a non-specified social norm, threatens to destabilize the protection that whiteness would otherwise convey upon Bob.  Maurice's use of the term reinforces his dominance over Bob, indicated by Maurice's ability to reverse the social terms of power, however limited and momentary that reversal might be.  In making explicit a typically invisible trait, however, the term indicates contempt for Bob (not unlike "white trash").  Correspondingly, Bob is represented as the least talented of the criminals, suggesting that only a white man of limited mental resources would allow himself to work for a black man and bear such a nickname. 

[28] Several other moments in the film explicitly address racial difference only to disavow the mobilization of racist stereotypes upon which the film depends.  For instance, several brief scenes negatively portray minor white characters who harbor racist assumptions.  In an early scene, the film quickly codes Buddy as sympathetic when a white woman unwittingly interrupts him attempting to break into her car, allows him to put her groceries into the trunk, and then, clutching her purse, assumes he wants to be paid but refuses to tip him.  Despite the fact that Buddy immediately steals her car, the audience is encouraged to condemn the woman for her racism and parsimoniousness.  In another scene, as Buddy and flee the FBI in the elevator of Buddy's apartment building, an elderly white woman joins them and assumes Buddy is the elevator man.  Once again the film invites the audience to judge this woman for her race-based assumption.  In mocking these women, the film reveals and pathologizes white stereotypes about black men.  Nonetheless, as in many films that depict racism, Out of Sight posits white women as its source, with the result that the critique does more to advance sexism than challenge racism.  Blaming middle-class white women for racism neatly forecloses other lines of inquiry, such as an investigation of who stands to benefit from protecting frightened white women.  In fact, while reprimanding white women for fearing black men, the film evidences enormous anxiety about black masculinity.  White women thus provide useful scapegoats for the film's own reliance upon the figure of the rapacious black male.    

[29] The white male vigilante intent upon rescuing white womanhood from the dangers posed by the predatory black male appears again in Traffic, Soderbergh's film about the U.S./Mexico drug trade.  The second half of the film primarily involves a subplot about a judge's quest to rescue his daughter, as Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), recently named U.S. drug czar, pursues his teenaged daughter from their white Cincinnati suburb to a black downtown neighborhood that the film presents as dangerous and anarchic.  Casting this role with Michael Douglas, who routinely plays characters with conservative gender politics, underscores the film's commitment to valorizing white male protectiveness.  Over the course of the film, Robert's daughter, Caroline, becomes addicted to cocaine and prostitutes herself to support her habit.  Caroline first takes drugs and has sex with her white, upper-class boyfriend.  Although the dangers of the teens' drug use is signaled when one of Caroline's friends overdoses, the initial presentation of Caroline's drug use occurs within the safe confines of her upper-class suburban home in the company of her homogenous group of friends.  In contrast, her addiction soon drives her to a black drug dealer's unfurnished apartment in downtown Cincinnati, which the film portrays as a chaotic realm of sirens, honking horns, and angry black men prowling the sidewalks.  While Robert drives around searching for his daughter, black men on the street scream at him in apparently unprovoked outbursts.  Meanwhile, his wife, Caroline's mother, appears almost exclusively at home, a model of passive domestic femininity.  The inner-city sequences thus perfectly encapsulate a paradigm of white male heroism, black male criminality, and white female vulnerability.

[30] The sexualized nature of this particular tripartite structure, so central to American popular culture, is entirely absent from the film's original source, Traffik (1989), a British miniseries.  The U.S. version, which combined several sources into one film, also distilled Traffik's more global narrative.  Traffic brought together a screenplay about drug use written by television writer and recovered addict Steven Gaghan, the British miniseries Traffik, and information provided by Tim Golden, the New York Times' Mexico correspondent.  The British Traffik, which at five hours is twice as long as the U.S. Traffic, weaves together the following stories:  a Pakistani poppy farmer's wife forced to become a drug mule; German policemen attempting to apprehend an international drug trafficker; and a British Cabinet Minister's adult daughter's heroin addict.  The inclusion of the cultivation and harvesting of poppies, and the manufacturing of heroin in the third-world context of a former British colony significantly broadens the British Traffik's scope.  For one, presenting the drug's origins humanizes the third-world producers, a step the U.S. version entirely avoids by focusing only on distribution.  As a result, the British Traffik includes sympathetic people of color victimized by the drug trade, a notable omission in the U.S. Traffic.  Both films include narratives in which women are made sexually vulnerable by the drug trade, but only in the British Traffik is a woman of color represented as a significant character with whom the audience is encouraged to identify.  In Traffik, we follow the poppy farmer's wife desperate attempt to free her husband from jail by submitting to work as a drug mule, resulting in her death when one of the packets in her body ruptures.  While the film sacrifices the third-world woman to demonstrate the drug trade's horrors, it also depicts the participants of the drug trade in sympathetic terms and makes this plot trajectory central to its narrative.  In contrast, social and familial contexts for characters of color in the U.S. Traffic are almost entirely lacking.  The good Mexican cop played by Benicio del Toro, for instance, apparently has no friends or family (as well as almost no motivation for his saintly, self-sacrificing behavior).  

[31] In keeping with its more complicated portrayal of race and criminality, only the British Traffik represents white criminals central to the drug trade, while the U.S. Traffic primarily relies upon the stereotypical figures of Latino drug lords and traffickers. One plot line in the U.S. Traffic, a parallel to the German policemen in Traffik, features Don Cheadle, in a more positive role than Out of Sight, as a resourceful DEA agent.  Cheadle and his partner, played by Luiz Guzmán, claim that their mission is prosecuting rich people involved in the drug trade; at one point they specifically mention white people as their primary target.  However, the major drug bust figured by the film is the arrest of a wealthy Latino drug dealer.  Rather than implicating any white perpetrators of the U.S. drug trade, the film instead reinforces the stereotype of the heavily accented Latino drug lord.  

[32] Finally, while in both texts the daughter of a politician becomes addicted to drugs and prostitutes herself to support her habit, only in the U.S. Traffic is racial difference used to underscore the exchange of sex for drugs.  Importing sexualized racial politics into the U.S. version thus suggests the prevalence and vitality of these cultural myths, as well as the ready shorthand they provide in justifying white male action.

[33] The U.S. Traffic uses the naked body of a black man to signify the moment that the politician's daughter, Caroline, truly becomes fallen.  (Deborah Shaw also notes this disturbing implication in her article "'You Are Alright, But …')  According to the logic of the film, Caroline's descent into addiction hits rock bottom when she has sex with the black man who sells her drugs, presumably in exchange for drugs.  (The only possible reading the film allows for this sex act is prostitution.)  This moment of debasement mobilizes her formerly work-preoccupied father and triggers his heroism.  Although Robert does not witness this encounter or even necessarily know about it, the scene functions structurally to orchestrate and justify Robert's increasingly aggressive attempts to reclaim his daughter.  Formally as well as structurally, the scene emphasizes Caroline's vulnerability and the multiple threats posed by the body of the black drug dealer.  As Caroline has sex with the drug dealer, the camera first films the encounter in a fuzzy point-of-view shot from her perspective.  The audience is thus immediately encouraged to identify with her; the drug dealer, who has no name, receives no point of view shots.  The next shot focuses on his bare shoulder, while her body beneath him remains blurred.  The composition of the shot makes the viewer complicit in protecting Caroline from not only the gaze of the camera and the gaze of the audience but also from the black male body.  This particular sexual encounter, the naked black male body with the naked white female body, is presented as an absolute violation, both narratively and visually.  The film uses the drug dealer's body, with its aggressively rhythmic movement, to horrify the viewer.  In addition, when a knock on the door interrupts this encounter, the camera continues to objectify and exoticize his body.  The camera films the drug dealer naked in a long shot from behind as he twice walks to and from the door (a more discreet medium shot is used for his approaches).  His revealed body is not presented as vulnerable and certainly not as erotic, but as a spectacle of raw, sexualized violence for the viewer. 

[34] Notably, both this unnamed character and Kenneth in Out of Sight are filmed naked in bed with white women in scenes meant to outrage the viewer and justify the violence white men resort to against them.  Soderbergh thus draws upon a familiar popular understanding of black men's dangerous sexual prowess, the unceasing desire of black men for white women, the helpless passivity of white women before this all-powerful force, and the absolute necessity of white men to patrol and rebuff this interaction. 

[35] The insidiousness of Soderbergh's portrayal of black men is all the more problematic given that Traffic mobilizes the techniques of realist filmmaking in its portrayal of the U.S. drug problem.  Despite the film's paint-by-numbers use of filters and lighting to code Mexico as a bleached yellow wasteland and Cincinnati as lurid, sinister, and blue, the film makes a claim to realism through its use of a hand-held camera, which has historically been used to indicate "reality."  As noted earlier, few feature-length films, particularly those that address such a serious topic in such a far-reaching manner, have been filmed almost entirely with a hand-held camera.  The inclusion of actual political figures, such as Senators Harry Reid, Orrin Hatch and Barbara Boxer, further reinforces the film's reliance on realist techniques.  In addition, the film's use of racking focus, in which the camera adjusts its focus from one point in the shot to another without an edit, gives the images a live, documentary feel.  Not only the film's formal choices but also its subject matter, the gritty story of the drug trade, allow Soderbergh to present the film as one that tackles "real" problems.  This claim to realism surely helped Soderbergh clinch the Academy Award for Best Director in 2000.   

[36] However, the suggestion that the primary victims of the U.S. drug problem are young, upper-class, white girls who suffer at the hands of inner-city black men amounts to a highly strategic rewriting of the historical impact of drugs in the U.S.  In the world outside of cinema, narcotics have devastated urban black communities, the very communities that are not only presented with absolutely no sympathy by the film, but also posited as one of the sources of the problem.  This film, which purports to reveal and indict the impact of drugs on U.S. and Mexican lives, portrays not a single black victim of the drug trade.  Instead, the film serves up the familiar figure of a black drug dealer intent upon sexually exploiting white women. 

[37] As in Out of Sight, the demonization of the black man corresponds to white men performing as agents of strength and protection.  Caroline's boyfriend Seth, for instance, is apparently able to consume the same quantities of drugs that she does without becoming addicted and selling his body to support his habit.   In fact, in an egregious substitution of the white male voice for the black experience, Seth ventriloquizes the drug dealer's perspective for Robert.  In a long speech, Seth delivers a monologue about the effect the drug trade has on "the psyche of black people," a psyche he apparently feels justified speaking for because he has purchased drugs from black people.  The lack of interruptions during this tirade, as well as the animated delivery of popular television actor Topher Grace, help the film validate the boy as a spokesman for "the psyche of black people."  According to Seth, the demand posed by wealthy, white suburban drug users lures poor, urban blacks into becoming affluent drug dealers.  The film basically upholds this racialized version of the drug trade, in which there are no black victims of drugs and no white dealers.  While Traffic undermines this message slightly by putting it in the mouth of a cocky, hyberbolic adolescent, it makes no further effort to challenge this characterization.  The visual evidence that the drug dealer inhabits a seedy, unfurnished hovel would appear to contradict the financial security Seth suggests drug dealing yields.  However, the drug dealer's poverty is verbally refuted later in the film when he angrily states that he has money and is therefore impervious to Robert's attempt to pay him for information about Caroline.  The film thus codes the drug dealer as an economic failure, given the wasted mise-en-scene of his domicile, while simultaneously asserting his monetary power as a threat, in that he claims to possess so much money that Robert's bribe has no force. 

[38] Although Traffic, unlike Out of Sight, does not kill this black male, it posits him as a major source of the U.S. drug problem.  When Robert finally rescues his daughter, he finds her naked in bed in a hotel room accompanied by a fully-clad older white man, who has presumably had or is about to have sex with Caroline for money, although the film does not deign to show such an encounter.  However, Robert only briefly pushes aside this man.  While the body of the black man is no longer on screen, this figure nonetheless haunts Caroline's prostitution, since her relations with the white man echo the exchange of sex for drugs (or drug money) that the film does depict.  Although the white man also represents a threat to Caroline (according to the logic of the film), that man's body is not posited as a threat to be met with violence.  Instead, as in Out of Sight, only the danger posed by the black male body provides an occasion for the objectification of that body and the mobilization of violence and anger against it.

[39] The black male body similarly threatens the white family in Soderbergh's experimental film Full Frontal, but unlike Out of Sight and Traffic, this film comments directly on the representation of black masculinity in Hollywood films, and thereby attempts to disavow its own mobilization of racial stereotypes.  Through irony, multiple storylines, post-modern meta-narratives about the filmmaking process, and efforts to unmask the artificiality of cinema, Full Frontal aims to critique mainstream film conventions, including conventions governing portrayals of race.  Seemingly designed to frustrate audience expectations, Full Frontal deliberately disrupts linearity, narrative continuity, and character identification.  However, while the film features a large cast of characters and many intersecting narratives, Carl (David Hyde Pierce), a white magazine writer and screenwriter, emerges as the closest version of a protagonist that the film offers.  He plays a major role in all of the film's storylines and receives the most extensive voice-overs.  With his friend, Arty, Carl has also written the screenplay for a film, Rendesvouz, the shooting of which provides one of the film's subplots.  Sequences from Rendesvouz appear periodically throughout Full Frontal, amid scenes from the filming of Rendesvouz, and Carl's and other characters' travails over the course of one long day.  Full Frontal thus includes disorienting transitions between what is purportedly "real" and the "artificial" world of RendesvouzRendesvouz, the film within the film, follows a romance between a white magazine writer, Catherine (Julia Roberts), and a black male actor, Nicholas (Blair Underwood), she is interviewing for an article.  During a scene in Rendesvouz, in a single unedited take, Nicholas performs a long spoken word piece railing against Hollywood prejudices that prevent him from playing romantic roles.  (The spoken word piece was in fact not written by the screenwriter, Coleman Hough, or improvised by Blair Underwood, which was the case for some of the dialogue in Full Frontal, but instead provided by an unidentified, uncredited friend of Blair Underwood's, described as a poet and a professor.)  As part of this monologue, Nicolas first explicitly criticizes The Pelican Brief (1993), which refused to depict Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington as an interracial couple, and then asks whether anxiety about black male sexuality still exists to the extent that such prohibitions remain necessary.  According to the logic of Full Frontal, however, such anxiety is fully justified, because when the actor playing Nicholas is not voicing this critique of industry racism, he is having an affair with Carl's white wife, Lee (Catherine Keener).  This irony works to justify white male anxiety about black male sexuality and about interracial relationships between black men and white women, familiar themes in Soderbergh films.   

[40] Nicholas' critique of Hollywood racism is also compromised by its containment within Rendesvouz, since one of the projects of Full Frontal is to invalidate the film within the film.  While the Rendesvouz sequences have higher production values and are shot on film, using flattering studio lighting, these scenes also foreground an insistent soundtrack, purposefully emphasizing an aspect of filmmaking most films attempt to keep at a subliminal level (with the exception of hit songs).  Correspondingly, Rendesvouz's narrative, the romance plot, is designed to seem superficial through its inclusion of melodramatic elements such as anonymous love letters and fainting spells.  Furthermore, despite Nicholas' earlier outburst, Rendesvouz does not visually depict Nicholas and Catherine as lovers.  They kiss once, but the shot deliberately undermines the moment, in that Nicholas' shoulder hides their faces.  At Rendesvouz's close, in overt and ironic accordance with Hollywood's continuing prohibition against portrayals of interracial sexuality, Nicholas and Catherine approach for a kiss in a close-up but instead nuzzle each other, cheek to cheek.  By asserting the inadequacies of Rendesvouz, Full Frontal satirizes the conventions of popular Hollywood films, which include inflated budgets, non-stop soundtracks, celebrity actors, and vacuous narratives.  In contrast, the "real" sequences of Full Frontal are shot on grainy, hand-held, occasionally poorly lit video, include abrupt jump cuts, and contain no soundtrack or ambient noise.  (During the commentary with director and screenwriter on the Full Frontal DVD, Soderbergh notes that the "real" sequences were filmed in actual locations [offices, homes, etc.], and that each scene was filmed in a one-take shot, which created more naturalized acting.  In fact, Soderbergh repeatedly refers to the documentary-like feel of the "real" film.)  The video segments also portray unsettling interactions involving alienation, abandonment, anger and betrayal.  In addition, much of the narration in these sequences is conveyed through documentary-like voice-overs; in these voice-overs, the characters speak as if responding to an unseen interviewer's questions.  These formal elements all work to reinforce the claim to realism made by the video sequences.  However, at the film's end, even the "real" story is revealed as an artifice, taking place on a set. 

[41] Full Frontal's critique of studio filmmaking is undermined by the fact that one of Rendesvouz's shortcomings, the refusal to depict interracial relationships, also appears in the "real" story.  In the "real" film, Lee and Calvin, the actor playing Nicholas, conduct an adulterous affair.  However, as in Rendesvouz, Full Frontal refuses to represent them visually as a couple.  Instead, when Lee and Calvin meet to have sex in a hotel, Soderbergh films the sequence extremely out of focus and obscured by a slatted wall (Soderbergh served as cinematographer as well as director on Full Frontal, so these formal decisions can reasonably be ascribed to him).  No other scenes with characters use this formal device.  The fuzziness recalls the portrayal of Caroline's body during the interracial sex scene in Traffic, although for most of the sex scene in Full Frontal both bodies are blurred.  The willingness to play with focus throughout the scene is striking, original, and aesthetically pleasing, but once again the interracial couple is denied representation.  Viewing the couple from such a remove, in terms of camera distance and focus, as well as the obstructions between the spectator and the characters, prohibits the audience from legitimating their relationship.  Lee is granted the scene's only moment of identification, during its single moment of visual clarity, when Calvin ends their affair and Lee's face appears in focus, allowing the audience to witness her grief as a result of the break-up.  While Calvin's body is not objectified during the sex scene, it does appear revealed on the film's poster and DVD cover, which show the actor Blair Underwood without a shirt, playing the role of neither Nicholas nor Calvin, among the other, fully-clothed, white principal actors.   

[42] Ultimately, the portrayal of sexual relationships between blacks and whites remains vexed and problematic in Soderbergh's films.  As in Traffic, white women having sex with black men threatens the stability of the white male's household.  Carl, the cuckolded husband, is one of Full Frontal's only sympathetic characters (although like all of the other characters, he has many unattractive traits).  If the threat posed by the black man does not drive this white man to vigilante violence, as in Out of Sight and Traffic, Full Frontal nonetheless relies upon the figure of the black man to threaten the white man's family and home.  As in other Soderbergh films, a thoughtful white man occupies the film's moral center, surrounded by dangerous black men and vulnerable white women. 

[43] Significantly, black men wield a specifically sexual threat in all three films.  Kenneth's criminality, the drug dealer's ruthlessness, and Calvin's egotism might have been portrayed in any number of ways.  However, in keeping with contemporary understandings of racial steroetypes, the invocation of black male sexuality provides the quickest threat to the white nuclear family and best justifies white men's action.  Full Frontal, which features the most passive of the white men (Carl), in fact evidences a striking level of anxiety about black male sexuality.  Impotent for over a year, Carl worries about his hair loss and his alienation from his wife Lee.  The morning after Carl and Lee finally reconcile (and presumably have sex), Carl announces that in the night, he dreamt he had an afro.  This correspondence between blackness and sexuality links the return of Carl's hair in a stereotypically black hairstyle to the return of his ability to perform sexually.  Carl thereby reveals his understanding of sexuality as inherently raced.  In order to satisfy Lee, the film suggests, Carl must unconsciously "become" black.  Carl thus functions much like the films themselves; like them, he is seemingly progressive and entertaining, while harboring a sexual preoccupation with and desire to repress the black male body.       

[44] If Full Frontal somewhat smugly claims to be biting the Hollywood studio hand that has fed more conventional, popular Soderbergh films such as Ocean's Eleven, it also demonstrates a readiness to use stereotypical portrayals of black men as a way of validating the more central white male characters.  Full Frontal's reliance on the very ideology for which it indicts other films (such as The Pelican Brief) reveals a lack of investment in a substantive critique of cinematic representations of black men. 

[45] Despite serious limitations in representation, limitations that undermine the progressive impact of his films, Soderbergh continues to direct stylish and engaging films (particularly Out of Sight).  Given the liberal leanings of Soderbergh's films and his commitment to innovation on the level of style and form, one might hope that his future films will provide his black male characters with more to do than mobilize and justify the actions of the thoughtful white men for whom the director demonstrates a continuing affinity.  As a powerful figure in Hollywood, Soderbergh stands in a position to move U.S. cinema towards a more sophisticated representation of race and masculinity.

Acknowledgement

Thanks to Hiram Pérez for extensive conversation on and many insights into Traffic.  My reading of Traffic is also indebted to Mark Gallagher's essay, "Traffic/Traffik:  Race, Globalization and the Soderbergh Remake," in The Screenplay in the Process of Adaptation, ed. Jack Boozer (University of Texas Press), forthcoming.  

WORKS CITED

Bogle, Donald.  Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks.  New York:  Bantam Books, 1973.

Guerrero, Ed.  Framing Blackness:  The African American Image in Film.  Philadelphia:  Temple University Press, 1993.

Hochman, David.  "You Know Him.  The D.E.A. Agent?  The Cowboy Porn Star?" New York Times 8 June 2003: 13+. 

Kaufman, Anthony.  "Man of the Year:  Steven Soderbergh Traffics in Success."  Steven Soderbergh:  Interviews.  Ed. Anthony Kaufman.  Jackson, MS:  University Press of Mississippi, 2002. 

Morrison, Toni.  Playing in the Dark:  Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1992. 

Shaw, Deborah Shaw.  "'You Are Alright, But …':  Individual and Collective Representations of Mexicans, Latinos, Anglo-Americans and African-Americans in Steven Soderbergh's Traffic," Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 22 (2005):  211-223.

Soderbergh, Steven, dir.  Full Frontal. 2002. dvd. Miramax.

---.  Feature commentary with director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Coleman Hough, Full Frontal dvd.  Miramax, 2002.    

---.  Out of Sight.  1998. dvd. Universal Pictures.

---. Traffic.  2000. dvd. USA Films.

Williams, Linda.  Playing the Race Card:  Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2001. 

Willis, Sharon.  High Contrast:  Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood.  Durham, NC:  Duke University Press, 1997. 

Contributors Note

ELAINE ROTH is an Assistant Professor of Film Studies in the English Department at Indiana University South Bend.  Her work has appeared in Feminist Media Studies and the Quarterly Review of Film and Video.  Currently, she is co-editing Hollywood Motherhood, a collection of essays on the representation of mothers in Hollywood films. 

 

Copyright ©2006
Ann Kibbey.

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